Procrastination and Prioritization

Because procrastination is such a common problem, especially for students, we are presenting a series of articles that explore the issue in depth. This week, we look at the crucial importance of prioritization in breaking the bad habit.

Christopher Scheer is a learning specialist at Touro University California.

In a way, priorities are everything. How our heart/mind weights our likes and dislikes, wants and needs, values and goals — these rankings, developed over a lifetime, are like the software code which runs under the conscious surface of our thoughts, guiding our decisions and actions.


Contentedly eating a malted at the baseball game because you prioritize joy and sugar? That will change in a jiffy if a line drive comes screaming at your head at 100 mph; your most basic survival programming will have you drop that treat, no problem, in order to better duck out of the way or put up your hands to try and catch it.

The problem for chronic procrastinators is their code is faulty; they are living a life based on priority rankings that overvalue immediate rewards and don’t fit with their longterm goals — and thus are actually making them terribly unhappy, one guilty pleasure at a time. Of course, the concept of delayed gratification is not unknown to them, intellectually; it just seems not to have been successfully integrated into their processing.

In Freudian terms, the procrastinator’s primitive, greedy, pleasure-seeking “Id” is beating out both his realistic, rational “Ego” and his moralistic “Superego.” Modern neuroscience theory differs in key areas with Sigmund Freud’s groundbreaking framework yet there are strong parallels between both, describing a mind essentially at war with itself.

“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”

— Stephen R. Covey, author of “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”

Some psychological models also explain self-destructive habits by emphasizing the gap between our Ideal Self versus our Actual Self, where the former wants to be healthy and slender but the latter really, really, really likes corndogs.

Whatever the case, to rewrite our “code,” is no trivial matter, since it is not actually software at all! If a problem habit has been wearing grooves in our insanely complex behavioral brain for many years, it is unlikely to be quickly or easily relieved. Yet, one lever we can use to begin loosening its hold on us is by “surfacing” our prioritization process, to practice thinking consciously about decisionmaking which has usually been hidden from us.prioritize

The most common of these strategies make up the basic toolset of personal organization: Calendars, lists, alarms, schedules and reminders. They are, of course, a good place to start! When we make a to-do list, we are, in effect, saying to ourselves, “Hey, me, these things are important. You should do them.”

And, then, if we are a procrastinator, we don’t. Unfortunately, if you are reading this, you have likely tried all manner of paper and digital org tools and found them wanting. The problem is not with the tools, it is in the way they are abused, ignored, and undermined by the procrastinator.

Procrastinators tend to have a deficit in planning ability and be terrible judges of time; they struggle with unrealistic expectations of what is feasible. For example, having blown off a bunch of assignments yesterday, they will put a terribly ambitious plan of action on today’s calendar. This daunting list then serves to overwhelm them, pushing them straight over to YouTube, or right back to bed.

So what can you do? Here are some tactics others have employed to force you to be a more thoughtful prioritizer.

Think Like a President

Specifically, think like President Dwight Eisenhower. The top U.S. general in World War II before serving two terms in the White House, the man nicknamed Ike was also apparently something of an organizational guru who allegedly adhered to an elegantly simple method for sorting and prioritizing tasks: “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” This was later immortalized by management experts as the Eisenhower Matrix (see graphic, at right).Eisenhower-Matrix-920x1024

“The Eisenhower Matrix places anything you could spend your time doing on two spectrums: one going from the most urgent possible task to the least urgent, the other going from critically important to totally inconsequential—and using these as axes, divides your world into four quadrants,” explains Tim Urban, a blogger who recently gave a TED talk on procrastination.

Urban argues that procrastinators are sabotaged by what he describes as a metaphorical “Instant Gratification Monkey,” an impulsive fellow who wrests Procrastinators-Matrix1-539x600control of our mental captain’s wheel in order to drive us into the shoals of short-sighted distraction in Quadrant 4, where we waste time with activities which give us only the facade of pleasure. He created a Procrastination Matrix (see graphic, at left).

So how do we get this monkey off our back? Figure out what is truly important.

The 4-D Life

In his perennial bestseller, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey builds on the mantra credited to Eisenhower, arguing for a “4-D” sorting system: Do Now (Q1), Decide When to Do It (Q2), Delegate It Away (Q3), and Delete It (Q4). (See graphic, below right.)


The key is to be ruthlessly honest with yourself about what belongs in which category. This is not always easy: Urban describes what he calls “impostinators,” procrastinators who like to feel or seem productive by spending all their time in the busy Q3, where everything is urgent but nothing is important. And even those high-functioning individuals who can maintain a strong presence in Q1 — often driven there by what he calls “The Panic Monster” — are often too rushed and stressed to push into the important growth areas of Q2.

To get to those valuable Quadrant 2  activities, you will need to make a reasonable schedule and then treat it as sacrosanct.

“Quadrant 2 is the heart of effective personal management,” wrote Covey. “ It deals with … all those things we know we need to do, but somehow seldom get around to doing, because they aren’t urgent.”

Of course, if you are an emergency room nurse or an air traffic controller, you can legitimately spend your work days in the crisis mode of Q1. Many of us, however, wait until tasks are terrifyingly urgent before we will even take them seriously; Urban calls those that can successfully to the challenge of an endless series of brutal deadlines as “Successtinators,” which is certainly better than the “Disastinators” floundering over in Q4, yet still far short of ideal.Successtinators-Matrix1-539x600

“A Successtinator has found a solution-ish to his problems, but it’s not pretty, often not healthy, and usually not sustainable. It’s a clever duct-taping of a troubled machine to hold it over temporarily,” Urban writes. “A Successtinator can be happy with his life, but isn’t usually that happy in his life. And that’s because being a Successtinator does not make you a success. Someone who does something well professionally at the expense of balance, relationships, and health is not a success.”

Get Real About What’s Really Important

The reality, however, is that you can’t get to Q2 until you first get some control over Q1 goals and set aside the unimportant tasks clamoring for your attention in Q3. To gain further clarity, we will need to do some ruthless sorting of our to-do list, in order to find out what you should really be doing, right now, and what you need to commit to doing at a specific time in the near future. In other words, defining what goes in Q1 and Q2.

To make this process more visceral, some people will write down tasks on scraps of paper, then run what amounts to a priority Olympics, pitting them against each other to find the champion of importance and urgency.Prioritization-Doing-the-right-things-in-the-correct-order-Habiliss-virtual-assistant1

This may seem childish, but by forcing yourself to consider each activity under this focused spotlight it is harder to live in denial — i.e., that reorganizing our pens by color shade is really as essential to our happiness as finding our tax records for the accountant. Remember, we are trying to think consciously about decisions which our (procrastinating) brain has been deciding subconsciously.

Swiss Cheese It

Once we have prioritized a project, it may still seem quite daunting. We can’t underestimate how much our fears — of failure, of pain, of risk — can quickly drive us right over to the distracting relief of Quadrant 4. Thus, it is very much in our interest to decrease the anxiety we feel about those Quadrant 1 and 2 items.

One classic approach to decrease stress is to spend some time thoughtfully breaking larger, complex tasks into their component pieces. Facing a messy room is overwhelming, but if you can target each area of the room as a separate “job” — first the desk, then the bed, etc. — it can powerfully shift the tipping point needed to begin work. Remember, marathons are run step by step and buildings are built plank by plank.

An alternative to this approach is what Princeton’s McGraw Center for Teaching & Learning calls Swiss Cheesing It: “Devoting short chunks of time to a big task and doing as much as you can in that time with few expectations about what you will get done.” For example, a medical student who previews lectures the night before, or skims through a set of PowerPoint slides before then reviewing more carefully. “You’ll have less work to do to complete the task, and it won’t seem so huge because you’ve punched holes in it (like Swiss cheese). In short, it’ll be easier to complete the task because you’ve gotten started and removed some of the obstacles to finishing.”white-mouse-eating-swiss-cheese

Another way to think about this: You are the skinny-dipper who jumps in the cold water quickly, before you have time to think about how painful it is; you might jump right back out, but you’ve already proven to yourself it won’t kill you, and will be more willing to get wet again the next time.

OK, now that you’ve made it this far, you have earned a break in Quadrant 4 — perhaps you can Google how they make the holes in Swiss cheese!


Next week: Building Better Habits

The Procrastination Series on

  1. Struggling with Procrastination
  2. Why Do We Procrastinate?
  3. Why Is It So Hard to Stop Procrastinating?
  4. Beating Procrastination: The Tipping Point
  5. Interventions for Severe Procrastination
  6. Prioritization vs. Procrastination
  7. Building Better Habits
  8. Tools, Resources, and Further Readings


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